Digitisation of Labour: Configurations of Real and Virtual Migration

Project: Research

Project participants

Digitisation is profoundly changing labour relations and patterns of mobility. On the one hand, almost all existing areas of work are changing. On the other hand, digitisation produces new forms of digital labour which, with the help of the internet, are increasingly globally distributed. One central element of this transformation is the rise of digital platforms: from online retail, over taxi and food delivery services, through to crowdworking platforms for digital labour. While the platform-driven digitisation of labour and life is beginning to receive attention within the social sciences, there is a lack of studies with ethnographic depth, especially concerning the practices of mobility and the migration projects produced by this transformation of the world of work.On the basis of two exemplary cases, the project researches how the practices of mobility and labour migration – and, as such, labour itself – changes under digital conditions. The case studies are globally distributed digital labour on crowdworking platforms and digitised labour on the ‘last mile’ of parcel and delivery services as an example of the digital transformation of ‘traditional’ professions. In both fields, platform-driven digitisation changes labour; not only through flexibilization and algorithmic management, but also in terms of the mobility requirements faced by workers. Crowdworking platforms allow the global distribution of digital labour down to the personal computers and smartphones of the workers, who become ‘virtual migrants’ (Aneesh 2006) without changing their location. The economic importance of ‘last mile’ delivery services has increased enormously due to online retail and platforms, while requiring place-bound forms of digitised labour that are also connected to new mobility practices. Here, a high number of ‘real life migrants’ are employed whose flexible mobility practices correspond with the requirements of labour.A demand-oriented, flexible and just-in-time allocation of labour is characteristic of both fields. The interplay of forms of virtual and real migration shows how processes of digitisation produce and reconfigure heterogenous mobility practices which are increasingly flexible, differentiated and temporalized. This raises epistemic and socially relevant questions about the concept of migration, and for research on migration. These will be addressed theoretically and in relation to the ethnographic research.